Reading Jesus Paradigmatically into the Northeastern Indian Tribal Context

Posted: February 27, 2012 in General

The Tribal theology[1] that is mostly emerged out of the Northeastern Indian context cannot simply be treated as a single entity; but, rather it has to be reckoned and studied as a ‘unity of plural phenomena’ as long as the tribal communities of the ‘Seven Hill-States’ are diverse in their socio-cultural ethos and pathos. The Northeasterners and the non-Northeasterners alike[2] may realize the diversified thinking patterns, philosophical outlooks, sociological lifestyles, and cultural and moral practices from tribe to tribe. From this foreknowledge one can suggest a pluriform entity called “Tribal Theologies” over against the prevailing notions and practices of analyzing it as a singular theological phenomenon. “What makes tribal theology of this region biblio-centric and at the same time contextual?” is a pertinent question to be asked in order to develop a new hermeneutical paradigm. When contextual theologies are mostly derivatives of theologian/s’ own contextual realities, a paradigmatic reading can be performed only by faith-constrained readers of the scripture. This demarcation of paradigmatic reading prioritizes the scripture over against all other influences and contextual beckoning(s).

Through the means of paradigmatic reading, one, firstly, models text as a paradigm and necessitates the reader to understand it by way of various tools and means and, secondly, s/he efficaciously contextualizes the message of the text for the contemporary scenario. It is primarily a text-to-context sequential model over against the existent trends of context-to-text sequential models[3] of reading. The activity of text-reading cannot be understood as a monologic phenomenon; rather it helps the reader to connect the text to the context interactionally and conversationally. While the tribal communities are diverse in their socio-religious lives and practices, a faith-constrained paradigmatic reader shall begin from the text in order to read textual/scriptural reflections unto the context. For her/him, the text is the given norm/scripture/authority/inspired word and the contextual application is secondary to that. It inevitably requires authentic and relevant scriptural readers in order to unlock the grand narratives of the text for the sake of praxis-oriented application. The scripture has to be looked at with discipleship/missional/witnessing concerns and the message has to be channelized to the society holistically. This will help the reader both to safeguard the ontological and semantic essence of the text and its implicatory aspects.

A paradigmatic reader can be one who develops scripture-centric outlook and further intertwine that with the tribal consciousness, norms and practices relevantly. The biblical themes, like righteous/moral living, fear of God, sanctification, justification, reconciliation, liberation, discipleship and others have to be carefully scrutinized and exegeted for the purpose of hermeneutical stimulus and application. In the biblical traditions faith-communities play significant roles and, similarly, in the Northeastern contexts people live and interact in communities. The connecting links of these types have to be established for efficacious actualization of the scripture to the context. A paradigmatic reader takes initiative to interpret biblical characters, topics, and issues in a society-inclined manner and that may further help the reader for interlocking the text with the context. S/he can overview the history of biblical forefathers like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as paradigms in order to intertwine with the forefathers-conscious communities of the Northeast. The commonalities of both the biblical forefathers and the Northeastern forefathers, like the exercise of truth, integrity, and courage, have to be reaffirmed for a renewed social consciousness and living. A biblio-centric paradigmatic reading is helpful in order to bridge between the pre-Christian stage of the Northeast and its latter Christian tribal context. A paradigmatic reader of the scripture understands the importance of biblical learning in order to deal with the upcoming educated villagers of the region.

When discussing about the meaning of Tribal Theology, Thanzauva[4] who considers it as a singular entity says, “In our effort to construct tribal theology, we have been pointing out ‘what theology is not’ in Northeast India”. He says further, “Today we are confronted with a new question of ‘what tribal theology is or should be’”[5]. While Thanzauva and others follow the ‘flow of the time’ and neglect the semantic paradigm of the scripture, a paradigmatic reader proposes a scripture-based paradigm that will better suit to the Northeastern Indian context. Instead of reading the animistic and forefathers-centric context into the text and disguising its semantic paradigm, a paradigmatic reader can better choose “reading the text into the context” model and subsequently suggest sociolinguistically-inclined implications. As indicated above, a “text-to-context” sequential model can be prioritized and utilized in order to safeguard the missio dei aspects in the tribal belt areas of the Northeast.

Yangkahao Vashum’s Interpretation of Jesus

What Yangkahao Vashum says in the following paragraphs is important to notify. He uses rooster as a representative of Jesus and begins with rooster and looks unto Jesus’ sacrifice as a relational aspect from the scripture. Vashum says, “In the sacrifice of the rooster and the death of Jesus Christ, the underlying significance is that both the rooster and Jesus died so that the people might live. There are, of course, limitations in the use of the rooster as the representative of Jesus Christ. While, the rooster sacrifice is temporary and significance is limited to the particular community on whose behalf the sacrifice is made, the death of Jesus Christ is permanent and has universal appeal. However, notwithstanding the limitations, there is a great deal of significance attached to the vicarious suffering of the rooster and Jesus on whose behalf they both sacrificed their lives”[6]. Vashum, on the one hand, accepts the limitations of the use of the rooster as a representative of Jesus in the Northeastern context, but on the other, he matches Jesus and rooster in synonymous terms. On the way to connect these two in parallel terms, he has failed to locate the ontological significance of Jesus’ vicarious death in comparison to the local phenomenon of the rooster sacrifice. A paradigmatic reader may not synonymise these two divergent entities at a stretch mainly because of the ‘temporary-eternal contrast’ existent between them. Distinct from Vashum’s liberationist reading, a paradigmatic reader can begin with the text and suggest Jesus as a paradigm. The rooster sacrifice can be considered just as a contextual metaphor in order to interpret Christ contextually. Thus, the attempt of the liberationists to contextualize ‘everything’ within the text in order to apply ‘everywhere’ in their context/s reveals their mismatching composition.

When a reader finds the relevance of Christo-centric reading of the text into the context, then only s/he can show justice both to the text and to the context. Vashum continues saying that, “…the Gospel writers describe the status of Jesus as being the ‘firstborn son’ (cf. Lk. 2:7; Mt. 1:25). As firstborn son, ‘he constituted not only the continuation of the family but also the continuity and permanence of Israel’s covenant relationship with God”[7]. He further says: “Jesus Christ is truly an ‘elder brother’ whose life demonstrated the qualities that were expected of an elder brother. Jesus is the elder brother par excellence, for in him the desires and expectations of an elder brother came into its fulfilment”[8]. Again, while Vashum and others begin with the context and look back to the text for references, a paradigmatic reader finds Jesus as the starting point of interpretation due to the fact that the text provides the reader dynamics of contextual interlocking. Interpreters of the text must expertise the text and understand the story/ies first of all from its/their own context/s and also from the overall framework of the text. In her book, Wisdom Ways: Introducing Feminist Biblical Interpretation, Biblical scholar Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza discusses about the necessity to pay attention on “meaning-making” conventions. Though I am inclined to many of her paradigmatic discussions[9], I would rather argue for an interpretation that shall be exegetically-acquainted, semantically-concerned, and ontologically-implied in nature and function. A reading aloof from the ontological-rhythm and original-contextual framework of the text might suffer from serious semantic and conceptual distortions.

Vashum’s talk continues as he interprets the ancestors in similar line to Jesus: “The ancestor and the elder brother exercised a critical role of being mediators. The elder brother being the eldest son in the family was charged with religious duties including offering sacrifices to the Supreme Being on behalf of the family. On the death of the father the eldest was expected to carry out all family ceremonies and sacrifices. On the other hand, the ancestor played a mediating role between the spiritual world and the living”[10]. Vashum says further that: “In adapting the role of Jesus to the tribal cultural context, one can substitute Jesus as the Ancestor who represents the mystery of the invisible God”[11]. Again, one can amply prove the mediatorship of Jesus on the basis of scriptural evidences. From there a reader can go ahead to the contextual beckoning(s). In Vashum’s interpretations, one can notice that he is seemingly trapped between the context and the text and interprets the text for the sake of contextual needs and aspirations. In this juncture, before someone moves ahead to liberate people from the clutches of oppression, one needs to liberate the scripture from the non-ontological and non-semantic interpreters and their distortive paradigms.


It is not only the relational aspects but also ontological aspects decide the meaning of the text. When one relates the contextual aspects like rooster, elder brother, and ancestors with the biblical characters/norms/principles, s/he needs to pay special attention on the semantic and ontological paradigms of the text. While biblical characters and themes are functioning within the textual horizon with a sole purpose, readers need to unlock the text in order to understand its revelatory aspects. The principle of ‘accommodation and disruption’ can be used as a tool in order to channelize the text authentically to the contemporary contextual realms. The biblical concept that ‘God is spirit’ can be well adjusted to the tribal aspirations of the Northeasterners. The Creator God of the Bible can be an all-inclusive reality who can encompass the tribal spirits. Jesus the healer and possessor of the spirit of God can replace the role of all the local spirits. The Biblical concept of the ‘Good God’ can be relevantly emphasized in a context in which God is viewed as Lijaba[12]. Only a paradigmatic reader can bridge between the text and the context meaning-friendly. Instead of allowing the plural contexts of the people groups interpret the text, a paradigmatic reader allows the authoritative text, which has potential meaning, interpret the context/s. A text-to-context interpretative journey will largely help the reader/s in the process of meaning-making. It happens only when interpreters allow the text converse with the context. Let the text speak to the context; let the potential meaning interlock the community/ies.


[1] I gathered ideas toward this post while I visited Kohima and Dimapur for internship visit. Thanks to Jonathan Mesen, Vito Chishi, Asienuo Rio, Zuchong Ovung, Enoch Newmei, Alogel Jajo, Keyigumpeule Thou, and Meren Imchen for their valuable sharing/s toward this endeavour.

[2] I. e., those who are in constant touch with the North-Eastern contexts and people groups.

[3] Cf. B. J. Syiemlieh, “Contextual Interpretation of The New Testament in Northeast India: A Search for Principles and Methods”, Tribal Theology and the Bible: A Search for Contextual Relevance, Ed. Yangkahao Yashum (Rajabai, Jorhat: Tribal Study Centre/Eastern Theological College, 2011), pp. 39-56.

[4] One who proposed a “Synthetic-Praxis” methodology for developing Tribal Theology in the North-Eastern India.

[5] K. Thanzauva, “Issues in Tribal Theology”. Tribal Theology: A Reader. Ed. Shimreingam Shimray. Jorhat: Tribal Study Centre, ETC, July-Dec., 2008. Vol. XIII. No. 2., p. 17. Also see K. Thanzauva, “Tribal/Indigenous Interpretation of the Bible: A Keynote Address”, Tribal Theology and the Bible: A Search for Contextual Relevance, Ed. Yangkahao Yashum (Rajabai, Jorhat: Tribal Study Centre/Eastern Theological College, 2011), pp. 13-25.

[6] Yangkahao Vashum, “Jesus Christ as the Ancestor and Elder Brother: Constructing a Relevant Indigenous/Tribal Christology of North East India”. Tribal Theology: A Reader. Ed. Shimreingam Shimray. Jorhat: Tribal Study Centre, ETC, July-Dec., 2008. Vol. XIII. No. 2, pp. 21-22. Also read Yangkahao Vashum, “The Bible as a Story Book: Tribals Reading the Bible as Stories”, Tribal Theology and the Bible: A Search for Contextual Relevance (Rajabai, Jorhat: Tribal Study Centre/Eastern Theological College, 2011), pp. 1-9.

[7] Vashum, “Jesus Christ as the Ancestor and Elder Brother”, p. 30. Cf. Peter C. Phan, Christianity with an Asian Face: Asian American Theology in the Making. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2003, p. 136. Also read Syiemlieh, “Contextual Interpretations of The New Testament in Northeast India”, pp. 39-56.

[8] Vashum, “Jesus Christ as the Ancestor and Elder Brother”, p. 30-31. Cf. François Kabasélé, “Christ as Ancestor and Elder Brother” in Robert J. Schreiter, ed., Faces of Jesus in Africa. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2000, p. 122.

[9] She suggests various paradigms like “doctrinal-revelatory”, “‘scientific’-positivist”, “hermeneutic-cultural”, and “rhetorical-emancipatory”. Also see Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, But She Said: Feminist Practices of Biblical Interpretation (Boston: Beacon Press: 1992).

[10] Vashum further says, “In the worldview of the tribals, the notion of the community encompassed not only the living but also the dead and the spiritual beings; the ancestors were an integral part of the community. Additionally, as a life giving source in the sense that through the ancestors generations of human societies have come to exist, the ancestors were closer to the Source”. Vashum, “Jesus Christ as the Ancestor and Elder Brother”, p. 31.

[11] Vashum, “Jesus Christ as the Ancestor and Elder Brother”, p. 31-32.

[12] In the Ao tribal context Lijaba means ‘Good God’.

By Johnson Thomaskutty, Union Biblical Seminary, Pune, India

  1. Angella says:

    Jesus, the Christ, the Anointed One: God in human form. 1 Timothy 3:16 – God was manifested in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen by angels, preached among the Gentiles (people outside the covenant of God) believed on in the world, received up in glory.

    Jesus cannot be compared with a rooster. God gave us some animals and some fish as food for mankind including plants, fruits and vegetables.

    the rooster’s life is cannot make atonement for sin it can only fill the appetite for a period of a
    few hours.

    But Jesus’s sacrifice is once and for all………….including those who were present in His time,
    those who will be born after His time abd those who were born before His time.

    1 Pweter 4:6 For this reason the gospel was preached also to those who were dead that they
    might be judged according to men in the flesh………..

    When Jesus died on the Cross, He descended into hell and took the keys from satan open
    the gates of hell and preached to the prisoners in hell.

  2. My attempt here is not to say that we must not use those contextual metaphors in interpretation. But, I say that all the contextual elements are secondary to the scripture.

  3. Achem SHILLONG says:

    sir, its a great research. God bless

  4. Ephraim KS says:

    Excellent write up…..God bless

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